My informant, YM, is a 52 year-old woman of ethnic Chinese background who grew up in a small town in Malaysia called Taiping in the 70s. This story was told as a re-telling of an experience her father had during a nightly excursion. Throughout the story, there will be references made in other languages, so a glossary will be provided for better understanding. The interview was done over the dinner table, as I asked my informant if they recalled any ghostly experiences.
Informant: Oh yeah, I remember last time gong gong saw before. You know, last time gong gong was a part of Rukun Tetangga right. So last time they will always gather around at night to patrol, and it’s always late at night. So they went on one of their patrols, they do that every night. At like 4am, he saw this one man, he was dressed in all white, just walking in the middle of the road in front of them. You remember the corner road there?
Me: Is it, like, the intersection?
Informant: Ah yes, so there’s this one man, very tall and thin, dressed in white, just walking in the middle there. Who would walk alone at that time right, in the middle of the night some more? So the group tried to follow him when he turned the corner. You would think that if he was a real person then they will still see him walking ahead of them right? But when they turned the corner, the man disappeared. He wasn’t there anymore. How can?
Me: So it was a ghost?
Informant: I think it was Na Tuk Kong. I don’t know whether that’s a ghost lah.
Me: What’s Na Tuk Kong?
Informant: It’s some kind of god or spirit that is supposed to protect your land. Do you know those santoi that you see at those buildings? Around the corner there. That one is for Na Tuk Kong so that he will protect the land or the building. I don’t think he’s a Chinese god, I think we only have it in Malaysia. He’s supposed to be a Muslim man I think. Na Tuk is supposed to be datuk, that’s where it came from.
gong gong: grandfather (Mandarin)
Rukun Tetangga: a neighborhood initiative where men of the household would patrol the neighborhood during the nights
Na Tuk Kong: Malaysian local guardian spirit
datuk: people of a high social standing; elder, usually a male (Malay)
I think this is a classic story of a sighting of this particular spirit. There are also notions of the spirit to be considered: He is dressed in all white; in Chinese traditions, white is usually associated with death. He is seen at an intersection; an intersection is a liminal space. He is seen at 4am; a number that in Chinese culture is synonymous with death. It also contributes to the idea of a localized spirit. He is a guardian for the area, so he is only seen in that area. The spirit itself also shows that for this community of people, the peace and safety of their land is important, to an extent that a spirit is worshipped to serve that purpose.
Also, it is interesting to see that this lesser deity was a result of a syncretic culture. He is exclusively worshipped by the Malaysian Chinese community, but in folklore, he is a Muslim Malay man. This is a testament to its origins in Malaysia— a country that is multi-ethnic and multi-religious. In a way, it also speaks to the fact that spiritual identity and belief is not necessarily cemented in one religion, and can borrow elements from different religions and cultures.